Factum of Minimum Wages

The number of marginal workers in Madhya Pradesh is 66 lakh while that of small farmers is 37 lakh. Thus wage earning through hard physical labor is an important means of livelihood for 97.06 lakh families. Presently about 94% work force is in unorganized sector being exposed to widespread exploitation. However with the implementation of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme the hopes of the workers have risen to be able to meet their basic needs by at least earning the minimum wages. In the state the minimum wages of the agricultural workers is fixed on the basis of Consumer price Index and so accordingly the minimum wages have been fixed @ 411 rupees per month and 41.67 rupees a day. The combinations of both heads determine the stipulated Minimum wages for the Agricultural workers. But the question arises over the sufficiency of this Minimum wage rate for the survival in the face of prevailing price index. This requires the revision of minimum wages to at least 1841 rupees a month or 61.37 rupees a day.

Majhera village of Shivpuri district in MP has practically no alternative employment option to daily wage earning. The stone quarries in the area were shut down due to heavy losses incurred by illegal mining operations. The implementation of NREGA has provided a ray of hope among wage earners in the area. They demanded 25 days of work and the same was provided to them. But they stopped working after mere two days as the wages that were worked out for their hard labor was hardly sufficient to meet their ends meet. This is true not only for Majhera village alone but for all the villages where families find it hard to meet their very basic needs by the minimum wages offered to them.

The need of the hour is not merely to revise the scheduled rates of Minimum wages but to change the entire approach to the issue. The present rate of Minimum wages has increased the poverty instead of alleviating it. The exiting minimum wages in Madhya Pradesh is hardly enough to provide two square meals to an average household leave aside meet their needs for education, clothing or shelter.

The wages for piecework is determined according to the schedule of rates (SoR) for different works. In Madhya Pradesh the rates are fixed as per digging of 100 cubic feet on loose soil and 64 cubic feet on hard surface. But while linking the minimum wages with this minimum target of digging the fact is overlooked that that these rates apply to construction works executed by Government departments through contractors. Here the prime objective is just to get the work done and not ensure the employment or provide relief for poverty for the workers engaged.

Under the NREGA the public welfare and workers' rights are the important objectives or the backbone of the act. It has to be ensured how the already weak worker can meet these strict task based measurements fixed by the government to determine the wages payable. The situation of Dalit and tribal wage earners need to be considered who are physically so weak that it is nearly impossible for them to meet to meet these measurement parameters. On the other hand the government machinery in its attempt to show the progress of work insist on this strict standards that results in workers unable to earn the stipulated minimum wages. Thus their state of malnutrition, hunger and poverty remain unchanged and without any substantial improvements.

The irony of fixation of SoR is that the government has grossly overlooked the regional variations. For instance digging of soft soil of Hoshangabad and semi-hard soil of Barwani same parameters are fixed and applied and thereby disregard the varying geographical conditions. When a comparison is made between the workers digging the hard and semi-hard soils of Barwani and the workers digging the soils of Hoshangabad the former will never be able to provide the compatible output with their counterparts and will be branded as lazy, irresponsible and so on without considering the varying soil conditions they were working on. Even if the task-based rates are considered under the NREGA women will obviously be deprived of their right to equal wages with their male counterparts. This distinguishes the male and female and violates the women's right to equality. This demands a revision of minimum wages based on varying geographical conditions, communities involved and the principles of social welfare. Further the fixation of Minimum wages should be based on the consideration that it is sufficient to meet the basic needs of the workers.

Here it is also important to observe that the wage determination is based on quantum of labor input while a section of work force includes disabled, facing malnutrition, under nutrition and food insecurity. Thus the insistence of pre determined task-based payments for this section is in fact their exploitation. The need therefore is to break the nexus of technologies and mechanization and preferentially determine the wage rates in a manner that the human angle is not lost sight of. The increased linking of wages and productivity will establish the preferences for greater dependence on mechanization and thus ignoring the workers on the ground of not being able to contribute enough in the development process and reducing the government's social obligations to mere provision of compensation in lieu of physical wage earning options. Such a situation of course will evoke flagrant repercussions. Hence it is of prime importance to analyze the Right to employment in the context of poverty and existing social scenario.

The Minimum wages act 1948 is based on the Article 43 of the Constitution that directs that the minimum wages for the workers be so fixed that it is adequate to assist them to lead a respectable social life. The Act nowhere mentions that the fixed minimum wages be so less that is insufficient to meet even the food requirements of a family. On the contrary it provides for such minimum wage that is adequate to provide food containing 2700 calories per person, 72 yards of clothing for the family and the basic shelter needs. In addition it earmarks an amount equivalent to 20% of the minimum wages to meet the lighting and fuel needs. Lately in 1991 the Hon'ble Supreme court passed an historical judgment directing to set aside an amount equivalent to 25% of the minimum wages to cover the educational needs of the children, health care and other social requirements. But the state government has constantly ignored the constitutional and legal as well as Apex Court directives. In MP the stipulated daily Minimum Wage rate is 61.37 Rupees presently and the efforts are being made under NREGA to provide 100 days of work annually to 42 lakh rural families. Thus for an average family of 5 members the share for each member works out to be around 12.12 rupees or 6.06 rupees for a meal. On the other hand to meet the 2700 calories requirements the expense implied is 20 rupees per person a day and then there is need for additional expenditure of 20 rupees a person per day to meet the clothing, education and health care needs. Thus against the required minimum wages of 160/- a day (20+12=32X5) the government is   presently providing merely 61.37 rupees a day.

Then there are contradictions over the poverty line. As per government's own definition a family spending less than 1800 rupees a month is considered to be at the verge of hunger while it pays merely 500 rupees a month for workers' survival. The Central Government on the other hand has warmly welcomed the concept of globalization and open market and talks of international standards but conveniently looks at the other side when it comes to comparing the international standards of poverty. It never accepts nor implements the standards aimed to reduce poverty. As against the international standard of expenditure of $2 per person a day (equivalent to 90 rupees) the Planning Commission of India considers an expenditure of mere 12 –14 rupees a day as sufficient to lead a dignified life. This approach needs to be changed. The poverty line in India is in fact the Hunger line. It is indeed unfortunate but true that the parliamentarians are unaware of this stark reality of minimum wages. Recently the Standing Committee of Parliament expressed its shock over the prevailing rates of Minimum wages.

At present there are 66.90 lakh deprived and marginal workers out of which 45.52 lakh (68%) are women who suffer greatest exploitation in terms of minimum wages. The policy makers need to clearly understand the need for proper physical and mental capabilities of the workers and better wages. In absence of such development the productivity cannot be enhanced.

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a historic act of the Government but to achieve its objectives the fresh look at minimum wages. When the Central government is bearing the burden of additional wages it becomes the responsibility of the state government to initiate political steps to empower its workers.

The workers in the organized sector are in better position as compared with those in unorganized sector simply because they can unitedly fight for their Rights. So it is imperative that the workers of the unorganized sector unite and raise the concerted voice even the NREGA shall not be able to provide any protection. In the era of globalization, the absence of any united pressure on the issue of public importance, no steps to solve them shall be considered and initiated by any of four pillars of democratic institution. Therefore the need of united public struggle has to be accepted as a reality in this era.

Sachin Kumar Jain

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